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How Doctors Communicate About COVID-19: Like a Game of Telephone

Kali Cyrus, MD, MPH

Disclosures

June 22, 2021

According to most polls of those unsure about receiving a COVID-19 vaccination, "having more information" is the single most important concern expressed.

On December 17, 2020, I proudly strolled into the hospital to receive the first dose of my COVID-19 vaccine. Most of my questions about the vaccine's mRNA components, efficacy, or mechanisms were answered after reading The New England Journal, the FDA emergency use authorization report, and correspondence with friends who work as scientists or health policy analysts. As a doctor, I knew where to look and had access to multiple, reliable sources of information about the COVID-19 vaccine. More importantly, I also had the ability to understand and apply that information to my decision to get vaccinated.

You see, despite being a Black, queer woman at risk for disparities at every stage of the medical process (ie, access, treatment, and outcomes), I have access to information and many of the characteristics of individuals who are more likely to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. I make above $100,000. I have two graduate degrees. English is my first language. I have a regular primary care doctor. I could take a day off to recover from the side effects of the vaccine. I could make it to a vaccine site between 9 AM and 5 PM.

While I feel incredibly grateful to have these privileges, I cannot help but think of all the people who are vaccine hesitant, without the above characteristics, and how information is the main thing holding them back. And also whether we as doctors, scientists, and healthcare professionals are doing everything we can to disseminate the asymmetrical knowledge that we have acquired.

To become doctors, we spend at least 16 years of early adulthood reading, studying, and testing alone or with others with similar interests and from similar (ie, privileged and mostly white) backgrounds. Meanwhile, our peers have entered the job force, become parents, or taken on other responsibilities which help shape their maturity as adults. Then, we are expected to successfully communicate a highly specialized body of knowledge into a format comprehensible to the average patient's literacy rate.

For example, has a doctor ever told you that you needed to take a medication and did not explain how it worked and used words you have never heard of to explain its purpose?

Or have you ever asked a doctor about side effects that you might experience after starting a new medication or undergoing a procedure? And they reply with:

"I can't say for sure."

"There is always a chance."

"More than likely."

I cringe when I find myself saying these phrases aloud to patients, realizing that I am not fully answering their questions or, worse, potentially leaving them more worried or confused than when they came in.

Luckily, I have had plenty of practice translating information into accessible forms over the years. Growing up, I was acutely aware of my access to education. When I was younger, I distinctly remember helping my father, who went as far as high school, learn to pronounce complicated terms from the Bible and other texts. I keep this in mind when I interact with my patients, to ensure that they understand what a medication, procedure, or diagnosis actually means. And still, medical jargon slips in and I don't realize it until a patient interrupts me.

In December, I also visited my parents for the holidays and was able to answer some questions about the COVID-19 vaccine. Multiple times, I started and stopped as I tried to explain mRNA, immunity, and viral infections. My parents told me about a video they watched that claimed that the vaccine represented the mark of the devil, a form of identification that would help identify those who did not deserve to go to heaven. They asked how having diabetes, using drugs, or experiencing high blood pressure would interact with the vaccine. I felt so grateful to be a doctor; to feel confident and comfortable in sharing my knowledge to help them understand how the COVID-19 vaccine worked, which helped them decide to get a vaccinated.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I worried how well the scientific community would be able to help the general public understand how to prevent the spread of infection. I joined other doctors in creating materials, doing interviews on national television, and writing articles to answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Although I worry less these days, there is still a substantial amount of the population that has not been vaccinated and could benefit from access to information that is accessible.

So, with creative partners, I helped design a series of videos in English and Spanish that explain how individuals get infected with COVID-19, how the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work, and how the vaccines gained approval so quickly. Check the video playlists out here in English and Spanish to share with families, friends, patients, or anyone you know who is still on the fence about getting the vaccine.

Videos

English

How does COVID-19 make you sick?
How do the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines work?
How did the COVID-19 vaccines happen so fast?

Spanish

¿Cómo te enferma el COVID-19?
¿Cómo funcionan las vacunas contra el COVID-19?
¿Cómo hicieron la vacuna contra el COVID-19 tan rápido?

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About Dr Kali Cyrus
Kali Cyrus, MD, MPH, is a psychiatrist-activist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine. She sees patients part-time and specializes in addressing the impact of discrimination on BIPOC and LGBTQ-identified individuals. She also offers consultation for companies and individuals on managing conflicts stemming from identity differences.
Connect with her:
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